In a few weeks, Americans will go to the polls — a small percentage of them will, anyway — to vote for state- and local-level political issues and candidates. It’s one of the purer forms of democratic involvement, offering one’s thoughts on things that are outside the spotlight of national attention, things that are more directly influential on their daily lives.
Most of those casting ballots early next month will be doing so while simultaneously fretting that American democracy is under threat.
That’s clear from Grinnell College polling released last week. Most Americans believe that the country’s democracy is facing a major threat; include those saying it’s facing a minor threat, and 4 in 5 say so.
That position — particularly the more extreme version of it — is more common among Republicans. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans think that American democracy is facing a major threat, a finding that might surprise those on the left who consider the presidency and subsequent candidacy of Donald Trump as the trigger for their concern.
But another question in the poll helps explain the concern. Asked whether they are confident that the final count in the 2024 elections will match voter intent, most Americans said they were, at least somewhat. Most Republicans didn’t, with only about 1 in 8 saying they were very confident the count would match the will of voters.
This is the “rampant election fraud” position: The results of an election are suspect because of concern that the votes or the vote-counting have been manipulated. It is the position Trump holds in respect to 2020, of course, but this poll suggests that he will come into his (probable) 2024 general election campaign with his allies already suspicious that the results can be trusted.
That could prove to be an enormous asset to Trump, should he again be defeated by President Biden and again seek to stoke doubt about that loss to obtain the presidency. Which, of course, is the flip side of concerns about the threat to democracy.
In its 2023 American Values survey published Wednesday, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) asked respondents specifically about the threats to democracy posed by Biden and Trump. Most Americans thought that both candidates posed such a threat — or, at least, to “a threat to American democracy and way of life.”
As you might expect, there is a partisan divide. Democrats mostly think that Trump’s election poses such a threat; Republicans, that Biden’s does. About a fifth of each party thinks that their own candidate’s election poses such a threat.
PRRI also asked a more pointed version of the question: if either candidate wins, that means that American democracy is already broken. Here, fewer Americans held that position, but it was more common that respondents thought that of a Trump victory than a Biden one.
According to these results, then, a Biden reelection would lead just under 4 in 10 Americans to think that democracy had broken. A Trump victory would cause 45 percent of Americans to feel that way. A third of the country would view the results as a marker not of democracy working but it failing to work.
Perhaps those engaging in democracy at a local level, without the churn and agitation that accompanies presidential politics, will be more likely to feel that the system, however flawed, remains functional.